So what’s up with film these days? The 2010 summer release slate was deemed the worst ever in a much-commented-upon piece published in the Wall Street Journal in July (The Worst Movie Year Ever? by Joe Queenan, July 28, 2010), but year-over-year box office receipts are up slightly. Fewer people attended the movies this year, but prices went up… especially for premium 3-D admissions. It was a summer without a clear-cut, breakout film that everyone went to see, although Inception probably came closest. In an marked escalation of a trend we first commented upon in our 2009 wrap-up issue, 9 of the top-ten grossing theatrical releases this year are children’s movies, Inception again, being the lone exception. So what gives? Is cinema, as Godard so famously opined in the closing credits of Weekend (1968) indeed fin?
To take a stab at answering that question, the inquiry itself likely needs to be better defined. People have differing expectations of cinema, and like virtually all forms of media output, it evolves with each new generation. Film is not the most prolific and important media format of the day like it was in the first half of the 20th century. At some point, it was surpassed by television, then video games and now the Internet in terms of popularity and cultural impact. As a pure art-form, cinema is definitely dead, and it’s been dead for years… maybe even decades now. The great art-film directors that sprang up in the middle of the 20th century are mostly gone and the craft they collectively brought into being and nurtured along, gone with them. Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bresson, Ford, Paradjanov, Kurosawa, Buñuel, Pasolini, Welles, Lang and the other lions of 20th century art-cinema benefited from the relative adolescence of the form and made films in much different circumstances than exist today. Everything about film-making has fundamentally shifted in recent decades. The economics, the audience, the distribution, the studio system, home video, the Internet, film criticism, society, technology, etc. have all changed dramatically, and not surprisingly, film-making has changed as well.
One could argue that cinema’s present incarnation perfectly reflects the current state of Western thought. Today’s cinema has moved past the great probing questions of existence explored by earlier filmmakers and into capturing life as one big, endless adventure. The seeking of greater truths and enlightenment has been replaced by thrill-seeking escapism, the stimulation of the senses being the underlying goal of nearly every major contemporary movie. Some have argued that the movies are a reflection of the spiritual deadness of our modern society. A grim thought perhaps, but probably one with a least a grain of truth.
As an audience member for my whole life and a periphery industry participant for more than a decade now, my perspective on film has shifted in recent years as well. The more films I watch, the further I drift from the mainstream and toward the esoteric… and the past. It’s a dilemma likely faced by most people with unhealthy singular interests. You run the risk of moving from semi-knowledgeable to completely insufferable without ever noticing. The more you consume (and it probably doesn’t matter what form the media takes), the less substantial the mainstream fare seems. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to answer simple questions about movies like The Blind Side, Hot Tub Time Machine, Iron Man 2 and MacGruber. Are they any good? The question is absolutely valid, but probably needs to be worded differently and put in context to answer with any honesty. There therefore exists a presumption on my part that the question that’s really being asked is; Will this entertain me?.
And the answer to that question is typically; Unfortunately… and only all too well. And therein lays one of the key problems with contemporary cinema. The craft and technical complexity of film-making and the type and style of scriptwriting that ends up making its way to our screens has become a nearly perfect distillation of the target audience’s expectations. Studios follow rather than lead these days, audience testing every major project well in advance of green lighting it. All things considered, it’s surprising that interesting films still get made at all. So where is it all going – and why is it going there? Well, if we all had a crystal ball to answer that question, life would be pretty dull. Truth be told, cinema – at least as we once knew it, is receding into the background in terms of cultural relevance. It remains a powerful medium for telling stories, but more often than not, those stories seem intent on placating and entertaining rather than challenging and engaging the audience.
For a variety of reasons, not the least of which relates to new digital distribution models, cinema is midway through the process of devolution. The narrative underpinnings of traditional cinema are being displaced by user-generated and user-defined story arcs. We live in a time where everyone’s personal story is far more important than the collective stories of others and in a world where nearly everyone has a transmitter but almost nobody owns a receiver, it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that cinema, real cinema that is, is a dying art form. Exceptions exist to be sure, but the overall arc of cinema as an integral and fundamental component of our cultural mosaic is on the way out.
There will be those that dispute this contention and offer back countless examples of exception films completed and brought to audiences in the last year… and they’d be right. There are numerous films of merit, quite a few in fact and despite the fact that Hollywood seems intent on undermining the art form in favour of disposable pop-features, 3D gimmicks and conveyor-belt productions, it remains a medium of extraordinary resilience. What has moved is the centre, the mainstream event-film conjured up by executives and marketers to maximize audience demographic-reach…the comic book movies, films based on toys, recent pop-culture and/or pop-nostalgia retreads. It isn’t that films of merit, movies that spark your imagination or challenge your viewpoint don’t exist, it’s that they have moved to the industry’s periphery. The “language of cinema” (a pretentious phrase to be sure, but one that does speak to the undefinable “magic” that the best examples of cinema can impart) has shifted away from engaging the audience and toward, particularly in terms of its mainstream Hollywood representation, a purer form of escapist entertainment.
Our goal at the Film Buff continues to be the discovery of cinema that matters. What form it takes is irrelevant. Television continues to provide a surprising number of interesting and thought-provoking programs. It’s entirely likely, for example, that Mad Men will rank among our highest volume rentals this year. Once again, a cross-section of foreign and independent productions dominate our best of the year list. I’ve stopped apologizing for that. It’s just the way it is these days. The avalanche of films from the past released to DVD continues unabated making this, by far the most exciting time to be a fan of cinema…. ever. We have nearly unrestricted access to an incredible array of movies, from meticulously restored cinematic works of the silent era to modern cultural obscurities hailing from every corner of the globe. Documentaries on every subject (and from a myriad of viewpoints) find their way to DVD release, regardless of how limited their subject’s appeal may be. Taken together with the mind-numbingly entertaining monstrosities Hollywood barfs out every week (and there are days when that’s just what the doctor ordered too), fans of cinema are faced with an embarrassment of riches these days. It remains our job to assist with sorting through all these choices and suggesting the right film to the right person on the right night. A lofty, perhaps even unattainable goal, but one that we think is a worthy one.
The Film Buff